Fore-Edge Paintings: Beautiful Rare Book Art Discovered

Fore-Edge paintings are a marvelous bit of artistic expression that are found in some antique books, most commonly in the 1700s, however there were some created before that are still some created after. This refers to a painting that is made on the fore-edge of the book – not the head-edge (top of pages) or foot-edge (bottom of pages). What makes true fore-edge paintings so fascinating, aside from their stunning artistic beauty, is the fact that they’re not readily visible!

The old fashioned fore-edge paintings were designed in such a way that when the book was pulled from a shelf and looked at you would see the gilded edges of the pages, but there wasn’t any type of painting or picture. It is only when the pages are shifted slightly that the painting becomes clear. It’s like having a secret portrait on the edge of a book – and makes these highly sought after collectibles.

I have seen several century old fore-edge paintings personally, and even commissioned a modern artist to create one on an old but non-collectible copy of The Old Man and The Sea, one of my Dad’s favorite books, as a gift for him. These are remarkable pieces of art, and quite unusual to find on older books. You don’t tend to just stumble upon one of these that somehow was undiscovered!

Let’s dive into the new and fascinating world of fore-edge paintings!

fore edge painting Les Paumes de David 1754.
A nearly 300 year old fore-edge book painting from “Les Paumes de David,” picture used courtesy of Hofstra University.

What Are Fore-Edge Paintings?

A fore-edge painting is a painting done on the side of book pages opposite of the spine (called the “fore edge” of the book) and may or may not be visible to the naked eye, or may require special fanning or shifting of the pages to reveal.

The history of Fore-Edge paintings are interesting, and although they start as far back as around the late 1400s or early 1500s in Italy, they hit their heyday in the 1700s. These still exist today on surviving antique books from those time periods, from customized printed books with fore-edge paintings made by modern masters, and even today occasionally some will simply add their artistic touch to a personal book that is dear to them.

Fore edge paintings are so named because they are most commonly found on the outside of the pages on the vertical side of a book – which is traditionally called the fore edge. Simple, right?

What is most fascinating about fore edge paintings to me is that their original iteration wasn’t a picture that was obvious to see – but it was what some people in modern times refer to as “vanishing fore edge paintings.” This means when you look at the fore edge you just see the sides of pages. You have to shift or ruffle the pages slightly for the hidden picture to come into view.

For some books, like those that are doubles, fanning the pages in one direction shows one picture while turning around and then fanning the pages in the other direction can reveal another bit of hidden art – though most of the time any action to fan the pages will reveal the hidden book art.

parts of a book
Good illustration of the various parts of a book that a collector needs to know about. The fore-edge paintings are just that – paintings on the fore-edge of the book that are often “hidden” until the pages are shifted or ruffled to reveal the painted work.

Variations of Fore-Edge Paintings

There are actually several different variation of fore edge paintings and while all of them are somewhat similar or have common traits, it’s worth noting that there are some important differences that can be found that set each of these different options apart.

I am most familiar with single fore edge painting, and that is also going to be the version that most individuals who know about this craft will also be familiar with but it isn’t the only one out there.

Single Fore-Edge Painting

Most fore-edge paintings on old books are going to be single fore-edge. They normally are just described with the more general term without “singular” attached because this is the most common and basic of these paintings.

Most will have either gilt or marbling that is placed on after the actual painting. This is what causes the actual painting that is on the fore-edge to be invisible until you actually fan out the pages to reveal it underneath the gilt or marbling that is over the top of it.

Double Fore-Edge Painting

A double fore-edge painting is extremely rare, to the point that even many collectors aren’t aware these exist. These are paintings whose first record comes from the 1700s and describes a fore-edge that not only has one painting located on the fore-edge of the book but when the pages are fanned the other way, they create a different painting.

These two paintings on one fore-edge are incredibly hard to do and take a remarkable amount of talent to make sure there is a good picture that goes in both directions. Only 2-3% of all fore-edge paintings out there are doubles which shows just how much of a challenge this technique is.

Triple Fore-Edge Painting

Sometimes a panoramic fore-edge painting (one which is not only on the fore-edge but the top-edge and foot-edge, as well) is referred to as a “triple fore-edge” although it’s worth noting that this is not technically correct even if this is a common application.

This is when a third painting is applied instead of gilt or marbling. So you can see that third painting on the side without ruffling the pages, but then ruffling them should create a slightly different scene.

These are not especially common and are not as popular as the normal or double versions.

Split Double Painting

This is a specific style of a single fore-edge painting that has a unique characteristic that makes it stick out. When you have the book laid out so it’s open around the middle, you’ll notice a different painting visible on each side. That split painting makes these really stand out as something rare and special to find them.

There are some even rarer examples where the pages have to be pitched or spread a certain way for the painting to appear otherwise it still remains invisible.

There is an incredible amount of variance between these paintings and to see some modern examples up close (yes, while rare, there are still some who dabble in this art), then check out this UK Site on Fore Edge Paintings for a good look at one of each type.

How Can You Spot Fore-Edge Paintings?

Spotting a vanishing fore edge painting is as simple as opening the cover of a hardcover book, looking at the fore edge of the pages, and then moving or fanning the pages up slightly. This is simple and can easily be done without damaging any pages and will reveal any paintings that are hiding in plain sight.

This doesn’t have to be harsh or done like a secret handshake, just a slight shift in pages and perspective should be enough in order to see what artistic masterpieces might be hiding in what appears to be plain sight.

When I talk about fore-edge paintings it’s important to note that I am referring to the traditional style of the craft, which is sometimes referred to as “vanishing,” though this is a more recent moniker to differentiate it from just painting on the sides in a modern way. This art is visible when the book when the pages of a book are shifted so they’re not sitting in their resting position.

This fanning or smooshing, this shift in the pages, that reveals the hidden picture that had otherwise been hidden.

The looks you get on the faces of people seeing these hidden pictures for the first time is priceless, and I’m sure mine was equally in awe the first time I was shown one, as well.

If you’re an advanced collector you may know some of the collectible books from the 1800s that had a reputation for having fore-edge paintings and therefore you know to look for them. This is less common, but it’s still amazing even today what you can spot that other skilled eyes have missed if you just keep your eyes open.

Where Can I See Fore Edge Painting Book Art?

For most people the most realistic place to find an example of fore edge painting is in a university collection or a private collector’s book collection. There aren’t a great many of these around, especially considering that the practice has taken place for centuries.

That said, normally universities have some options for coming to see their collection. After all, what’s the point of a good collection if you can’t show it off?

Special Collections

There are several universities that have notable special collections of fore-edge painted books, and these are worth keeping in mind as many of the collections can be viewed, or arrangements can be made for the equivalent of a guided tour. These are wonderful experiences and some of the special collections are truly remarkable. Keep in mind that although viewing by the public is most often allowed, it’s best to call ahead and make arrangements as these are important collectibles and may be protected or gatekept accordingly.

A few notable special University collections of fore-edge books that are well known include:

There are some examples of art also being done on the head edge or tail edge of the book but this was not a common practice and is generally a more modern addendum to the craft.

Wonderful Additional Resources on Fore-Edge Paintings

These are all great resources for those of you who find yourself fascinated by fore edge paintings on old books the same way I am, and will keep you reading for plenty of hours, studying all the pictures, and diving even deeper into this fascinating historical literary rabbit hole.

There is also this outstanding YouTube video from a professional book collector and book dealer that goes in-depth into fore-edge paintings and shows several remarkable examples of some that he owns in his current collection – it’s a really fascinating video and a truly underrated small channel that really covers many interesting topics about book collecting in truly fascinating detail.

Brief History of This Book Art

This was most popular in the late 18th Century although the practice had existed for a few centuries before. Stephen and Thomas Lewis were two brothers who are credited with doing some great work that caught the attention of the aristocracy until they suddenly disappeared – almost certainly based on historical context due to being victims of the Plague.

This practice has existed since the 10th century and while it’s hard to get exact details, the legend which is as close to an answer as we’re likely to ever get is that Charles II of England would lend books to a friend, a duchess, and then not have them returned. When he gave an order to the court painter and court bookbinder (Sir Peter Lely and Samuel Mearne, respectively) and they came up with the plan to create a hidden image on the edges.

That way, when the king would visit his friend, if he saw a familiar-looking book he would reclaim the book and when she protested, he could fan out the pages to reveal a hidden Royal Coat of Arms…confirmed the book was indeed, his.

While it’s a fun legend, there might actually be some truth to this as research from the famed Superintendent of Bookbinding Cyril Davenport at the British National Museum found early fore-edge paintings that were of the royal seal of Charles II as far back as the 1600s. While there is likely never to be certainty, there was circumstantial evidence that this was in fact a common practice with early English Monarchs.

Does Anyone Still Produce Fore-Edge Paintings?

There are very, very few individuals who still practice the art of fore-edge paintings. This is mostly a lost practice and art, and that’s not surprising considering these were a very elite, rare, and high-end practice to begin with. When you think of just how small the market for these was as they were definitely a high wealth acquisition, and how few people today even know about fore-edge paintings, it’s not hard to see why this might be too niche to have a lot of practitioners.

However, fore-edge paintings aren’t dead. While there are very few artists who still produce these there are a few. Martin Frost might be one of the most renowned current practitioners and it is worth noting that his tend to be more colorful, complex, and in-depth than antique versions – but with movement in technology and technique over literal centuries, this would be expected.

The work is, undeniably, stunning.

That said, this is a very endangered skillset. There was never a large number of people who practiced the art of adding fore edge paintings to books so this isn’t surprising, but according to the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA) there are only four professional craftspeople currently recognized as professionals working in the medium.

If this was a craft you wanted to learn there are some basic tutorials for how it works, although no formal craft apprenticeships at this point. Doesn’t necessarily mean this couldn’t be arranged, but there is a reason that currently this practice is considered (unfortunately) an extremely endangered craft.

Can I Commission A Fore-Edge Painting?

Yes. While you will need to do a bit of searching, and with modern provides you will need to differentiate if you want a fore-edge painting or a vanishing fore-edge painting (vanishing is the traditional version). However, there are traditional providers who still do the work, and if you don’t care about the fore-edge painting being hidden until the pages are fanned, there are artists who do fully visible fore-edge painting that can be found on Etsy or via their own private websites.

There are options – but clear communication is important and it’s highly recommended not to do this with a book that is considered a collectible first edition as that does ruin the monetary value.

However, there’s also another option if you are looking to do this on a copy of a favorite book, but one that isn’t a collectible: have you considered making your own? While there are only four professional craftspeople recognized for practicing the traditional method of this art, there are at least 40 amateur practitioners who enjoy making their own modern version and there’s a great article here on My Modern Met that gives a step by step guide to making your own fore edge paintings!

While not all of us have that artistic ability (I for one do not), it’s another potential option that is available.

There are some examples of art also being done on the head edge or tail edge of the book but this was not a common practice and is generally a more modern addendum to the craft.

Old School or Modern Fore-Edge Paintings: Which Do You Prefer?

I love the old school art in all its forms, and it’s hard not to love some of the amazing paintings that are hidden “in plain sight” under the gilt or marbling on the side. Adding that extra art and mystery to a collectible book, or getting a custom made modern fore edge painting and that can really set a newer book apart or make an incredible custom gift for yourself to add to your collection or a special someone whom you know will appreciate such things.

If you have a chance to view some of the incredible examples of fore-edge paintings that many universities and private collections have, I would 100% recommend doing so. These are remarkable books, remarkable examples of a specialized art, and the amount of skill that it takes to do this type of work is truly incredible.

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